Peter had been following the fugitive's trail all day, wending high into steep, rocky country. Low gray clouds threatened snow, but so far it had yet to fall; the tracks in front of him were clear on the patchy snow between scrubby stands of trees. He kept the dogs close to him, ordering them back when they tried to run ahead, and glanced around him often, reading weather signs in the wind and the taste of the air. He'd lived all his life in mountainous country and knew well how quickly storms could swallow the mountains in a wall of snow and screaming wind.
Sometimes he smelled woodsmoke from isolated farmsteads or hunters' camps. It was cold up here; Peter could feel the sharp chill even through his heavy fur cloak and tall boots. He found himself feeling sympathy for the fugitive. This was hard country in which to be alone and hunted, especially in the winter.
None of which changed the fact that Peter had been tasked with bringing him back -- or, if he could not be captured alive, leaving his bones to lie on the stony earth of the hillside. This man, Neal, was a thief and a murderer.
Peter had gone on several such manhunts over the years. It was unpleasant work, but sometimes necessary. People did not often violate the close-knit society of the mountain valleys, but when they did, Peter was one of the men that the elders and priests called upon: big men, strong men, good hunters, men who could be trusted to be given an unpleasant task and see it through.
Peter had only spoken to Neal once, but he knew Neal's life story. The small villages and scattered farmsteads were all closely connected by ties of blood, marriage and trade; everyone knew all the gossip about everyone else. And Neal's had been a tragic tale. His family was largely composed of ne'er-do-wells and failures. As a boy he'd been the only survivor of a house fire that killed the rest of his immediate family and wiped out their farm. He was sent to live with distant relatives of his mother as a fosterling, but ran away -- he'd claimed they starved and beat him, and from what Peter knew of the family, he thought it was probably true. Neal had survived for years by charming his way into isolated farmsteads, staying for a little while and then moving on before too many awkward questions arose. When that failed, he stole what he needed to survive -- and, from what Peter had heard, sometimes what he didn't.
Peter knew all of this mostly through gossip, because after awhile Neal had become notorious in the area and word had spread among the outlying farmsteads to beware of him: the wild boy living in the woods, who stole and lied and did worse things, perhaps. He was blamed for every item that went missing, no matter how unlikely. There were stories that he'd threatened and attacked people, even rumors that he'd deliberately burned down his family's house and killed them all -- which Peter thought was a cruel accusation to level against a child.
In any case, he'd finally been caught, and Peter had been the one who did it that time, too, tracking the boy down with dogs and a hunter's careful patience. Peter would never forget how resigned Neal had been when he'd finally been caught. He was only thirteen or fourteen, and undersized at that, his hair long and unkempt. "I'm tired of running," he'd said simply, and he'd offered his wrists to be bound. Peter's heart had gone out to him despite his own better judgment; it had to have been an unhappy, lonely existence for the boy, never able to tell the truth about himself or to stay anywhere long enough to make friends.
None of his family spoke for him or took responsibility for him. In this rough and wild country, where there was the thinnest of lines between life and death, such crimes as Neal's could not be borne, no matter that he'd had good reasons. The elders were torn between banishing him -- a likely death sentence for someone so young -- or giving him the trial by ordeal, which would indicate the gods' will and was nearly always fatal. In the end, however, an unlikely source spoke up on his behalf: the old man who owned the farmstead where Neal had last stayed. Apparently he'd charmed them more thoroughly than Peter had expected .... particularly the old man's youngest daughter, Kate, who was about Neal's age. They were willing to take him on as a fosterling.
This was some ten years ago. Peter had later heard through village gossip that Neal had married Kate and settled down. People still said he'd never amount to anything, that the family's bad blood would come out, that the crimes of his youth proved that he was no good.
And now Kate was dead and Peter had been tasked with catching Neal again, so it seemed they had been right after all.
The weather was getting worse. The nearby hills were obscured by falling snow. Turn back or go on? Peter asked himself. Then he caught the smell of woodsmoke again, and smiled. He was very close to a set of caves that he knew Neal had used as a hideout ten years ago. While chasing him the other time, Peter had uncovered caches of food and other supplies here. The tracks appeared to turn away, so it was possible that a lone hunter or traveler had taken shelter there, but Peter didn't think so. He left the trail, which now appeared to be headed back down into the valley, and went overland.
A few small flakes had begun to whirl down from the low gray sky when he reached the mouth of the nearest cave. The smell of smoke was stronger, but he had to step up to the cave to catch a glimpse of firelight; a hide had been hung to screen the fire from observers, which was all he needed to know about who was inside.
"You look half frozen," Neal's voice said lightly from somewhere out of sight. It was deeper now, a man's voice, but still recognizable. "Come on in. Get warm."
Peter stepped inside cautiously. He left his bow in its weatherproof hide case, but did drop a hand to touch the stone knife at his belt. He'd never believed the more violent stories about Neal, but even a gentle man can become dangerous when cornered. The dogs were better protection than the knife anyway.
... except that Neal managed to instantly charm the dogs with some bits of meat. In moments he had them eating out of his hand -- literally. Peter sighed. He might have expected it. Neal must have met a lot of dangerous farmstead dogs during his thief days, and would be an expert at calming them.
"Go on and take your cloak off," Neal said. He looked a lot more relaxed than a fugitive ought to look, and was wearing nothing but a pair of hide leggings. Naked to the waist and barefoot, he clearly wasn't planning to run out into the snow.
Neal gestured at the mouth of the cave. It was growing dark, and the wind had begun to pick up, the snow growing heavier. "Do you really want to be out in that? Come on, warm up and have something to eat."
There was a rabbit roasting over the fire and a pot of porridge simmering in the coals. Peter's stomach growled. Neal grinned as if he'd just scored a point.
"I wasn't expecting hospitality," Peter admitted, shaking snow off his boots. As well as concealing the fire from observers, the hide hung across the cave mouth also blocked most of the wind. He laid out his fur cloak to dry by the fire and huddled close to it. The exercise had been keeping him warm, but now that he'd stopped moving, he became aware of how tired he was, and how cold. He would have had to camp up here anyway; there was little chance he could safely make it back down the mountain tonight.
"I like to think I'm a good host." Neal bribed the dogs with more offal, then ladled the porridge into two wooden bowls.
"You know I've come to take you back," Peter said quietly.
"I know," Neal said, and a little of the expected tension crept into his voice and stance. He handed Peter the bowl; it was blessedly warm in Peter's cold hands. "But I suppose I have until the snow lets up to convince you otherwise."
They ate in an unexpectedly comfortable silence. It was bad luck to discuss business over food. Neal, Peter noticed, had fixed the cave up in reasonable comfort for a fugitive's hideaway. There were mats to sit on, a pile of furs for sleeping, dishes and even a small stool by the fire.
It was obvious, however, that he was not planning to stay for long. A half-completed project by the fire appeared to be a pack frame that he was making out of supple willow branches, and there were signs of packing around the cave, with most of the small items bundled up.
"Where are you planning to go?" Peter asked as Neal cleaned their bowls with handfuls of snow.
Neal laughed incredulously. "Right, like I'd tell you."
"Traveling alone through the pass in winter -- Neal, don't do it. It's a death sentence."
"So is staying here," Neal said without turning around, and it hung in the air between them: their mutual awareness of Peter's purpose for coming here.
"Did you do it?" Peter asked him softly.
Neal flinched as if he'd been struck. "No."
Neal hesitated for a long moment. He was still in the mouth of the cave, framed against the snow-filled darkness outside. Peter wasn't sure what he planned to do -- run out into the storm, half-dressed and unarmed? Finally he said, "A man called Fowler."
"I don't know anyone of that name," Peter said.
"He's not from around here. I don't know why he came here." Neal was shaking, Peter realized. Snow, blown in from outside, settled in his dark hair and on his shoulders. His eyes were wide, reflecting the firelight. He wasn't just cold; he was reliving something.
Peter rose from his seat beside the fire and approached him as warily as a wild animal. When he touched Neal's shoulder, there was an explosive flinch. This close, he could see that Neal had gone very pale. "Come on," Peter said gently. He led Neal to the fireside and got him to sit down, then wrapped a fur around his shoulders. "Tell me what happened."
The story came out in fits and starts. Fowler had visited their farmstead this fall. He had some business with Kate's father -- Neal didn't know what -- but the old man had died two winters ago, and now the main work of the farm was done by Kate's brother, his wife, and their children, as well as Neal and Kate in their little household.
At this time, however, most of the harvest work was done, and Kate's brother had taken his family down to the communal gathering area where people from all the little farmsteads and villages in the area went to celebrate. Peter and El had been there as well. Neal and Kate had stayed behind to tend the stock.
Peter didn't have trouble interpreting what was not being said. As far as the rest of the family was concerned, Kate had married someone far beneath her: a former thief with no family and no farm of his own, not a link in the greater social network but someone who would forever be a burden.
But Kate had not seen him that way. Kate was one of the few people who had known his past and was willing to look beyond it.
It made no sense that he would kill her, Peter thought. He'd seen men fight and die because of hatred, jealousy, or ancestral feuds. But never for no reason at all.
"And then what?" he asked softly, resting a hand on Neal's shoulder.
"I don't know," Neal said. "I don't know what happened, or why. I was out all day mending a broken fence. When I came back in the evening ..." He sucked in a breath and swallowed a few times. "Fowler was gone," he managed at last. "And Kate was dead."
He began to cry. Peter didn't know what to do; then a deeper instinct surfaced, and he hesitantly put an arm around Neal's shoulders and, when that wasn't rebuffed, pulled Neal against him and held him while he cried with deep wracking sobs.
Peter wondered if Neal had even had a chance to grieve for his dead wife yet. He would have had no one to talk to, and had been locked in a constant struggle to evade his pursuers and survive in the wilderness as winter came down.
Now Neal was breaking apart in front of him.
Eventually, though, he relaxed against Peter, his shuddering easing until he was limp and still. "I'm sorry," Peter said, and he really was sorry. "I still have to ask you some questions."
"I know," Neal said shakily. He wiped his eyes and pushed away. "I ... it's good to talk about it, I guess? In a way. It makes her seem less ... less gone."
"What they told me," Peter said, "is that they came back to find her blood on you, and you stripping the house of the valuables."
Neal's breath caught on a miserable laugh. "Is that what they said? Why would I rob the house I lived in? We didn't have much anyway. If I wanted to take anything, I could have just taken it." He swallowed and wiped his eyes again. "No, I was taking what I needed to live. I meant to go after Fowler. Instead I had to run, and by the time I was able to look for his trail, he was long gone. I don't know where."
And Kate's relatives had been left to bury her.
"Is there anyone at all who can attest to this?" Peter asked. "Anyone who might have seen you out working -- anyone else who met Fowler."
Neal shook his head. "We were all alone on the farm. I wanted to ask questions, if anyone might know who Fowler was or what business he'd had with Kate's father, but of course I couldn't talk to anybody."
He rose and began to pace in the narrow space available to him in the cave. The dogs had bedded down near the fire; they raised their heads and watched him.
"What are you planning to do next?" Peter asked.
"I don't know. Leave, I guess -- what choice do I have? I have to find Fowler." A hard edge crept into his voice when he said it. "Go over the mountains. Beyond that I -- I don't know."
"If you try to leave at this time of year, you'll die," Peter said flatly.
"People travel in winter."
"Yes -- properly prepared, experienced travelers, who aren't alone."
Neal's jaw was set, his body tense. He turned away, looking out at the falling snow.
Peter sighed and rose stiffly from his seat beside the fire to, once again, pull Neal away from the cold and the dark -- and whatever cold, dark place where his thoughts had trapped him. "Go to sleep. It'll snow for awhile yet. There's no need to make any decisions now."
A chill draft and a commotion among the dogs awoke Peter. He raised his head. The fire had died to low embers and it was still dark outside. The draft had been the hide cover being pulled back.
Neal was gone.
Peter heaved a sigh and reached for his fur cloak.
The snow had stopped and the world outside the cave had a subtle luminescence, the pristine white of the snow gathering what little light there was, reflecting it back. Neal's trail was abundantly clear, broken clear and dark through the knee-deep snow.
Peter's longer legs gave him an advantage, and Neal didn't have much of a head start anyway. It didn't take long to spot the fur-draped figure slogging stubbornly through the snow. He was making no effort to hide his trail, which meant he knew Peter would follow him. That didn't seem like a good sign.
Neal stopped after a moment, and turned around. It was too dark to see his expression, though Peter could see the glimmer of the frost on the fur around his face. "It's probably too much to ask that you'll just let me go."
"Let you go to do what?"
"To find my wife's killer," Neal said wearily and patiently.
He looked so small and alone to Peter, surrounded by the vastness of the winter forest.
"I thought we agreed you'd die if you try to cross the mountains." A darker suspicion crept over Peter. "Do you even care if you die?"
"Yes!" Neal snapped, and turned his back on Peter, his shoulders hunched.
He wasn't consciously trying to kill himself, Peter thought. But who would blame him for being careless of his safety now? There was nothing for him here, just a lot of people who hated him and thought him guilty of murder. If he died on the hunt for his wife's killer, it would not be a bad death. Peter could see himself doing the same if something had happened to El.
The right thing to do was probably to let Neal go. Peter did not believe he'd murdered his wife. But ... leaving him to walk alone into the snow didn't feel right.
"Let me take you back. You can tell your story to the elders."
Neal gave a short, dark laugh. "Who will believe me? I was alone in the fields all day. No one saw me. And I have no kin. Who would speak on my behalf?"
"I would," Peter said.
Neal made no sound, but he lowered his head, hunching like someone in pain.
Neal made no more effort to escape or leave. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Peter honestly couldn't figure out if that was good or bad. It was as if the past days of fear and grief had all caught up with him at once. He sat silent in the cave while Peter extinguished the fire and gathered their things; wan gray daylight had come at last, filtering through the low clouds, and Peter didn't want to risk being snowbound if the weather took an even worse turn.
Peter broke trail, with the dogs and a quiet, subdued Neal in his wake. "You made the right decision," Peter told him during a stop to rest and drink some water.
Neal shrugged. "It's death either way," he said softly. "If this makes your conscience feel better, then why not."
"You're not going to die," Peter said, wishing he was more convinced himself. "You didn't kill her. They'll have to listen and believe."
Neal sat quietly for a moment longer, then looked up. The skin beneath his eyes was dark as a bruise. "Do you believe me?"
"Yes," Peter said. "I'm taking you to my home. I wouldn't do that if I didn't believe you."
Neal's eyes rested on him for a long while, his face unreadable. When they started walking again, though, Peter thought Neal seemed a little less like a sleepwalker, a little more alert and aware of the world around him.
They reached Peter and El's farmstead as the snowy fields faded into a blue dusk. The lights of the house blazed through the evening's gloaming. Peter and El had a small place with just a few fosterlings and some cousins living with them -- enough people to work the land and hunt, but not enough to feel crowded.
Peter had already decided that he didn't plan to treat Neal as a prisoner, and once inside he made sure they both had a warm place by the smoky fire in the middle of the house's single large room. There was hot stew for both of them, and El capably diverted the attempts of other members of the household to ask questions.
After they were all bedded down -- Neal had been given a sleeping platform to share with a young male cousin -- he told El the entire story, speaking quietly in the relative privacy of their sleeping furs.
"How terrible," she murmured. "I can't imagine it."
"I was probably a fool to bring him back," Peter said. "Or maybe I'm the fool for believing him -- maybe I should be sleeping with one eye open to be sure he doesn't slaughter us all."
"You don't think that."
He sighed. "No. I don't."
"In the morning I'll send some of the children to start gathering people together," El said. "Neal will have to live here until the elders are able to come."
And she would be talking to the priests privately, he knew, since El was a priestess herself. People had warned Peter about marrying her -- it wasn't forbidden, but those powerful men and women were both respected and feared by ordinary people, and it was generally considered unwise, bad luck perhaps, to be too closely involved with them. Peter was glad he hadn't listened; he would have missed out on a lifetime with the most amazing woman he'd ever met. Sometimes she had her private business, but he also had his own.
Peter said, somewhat hesitantly, "I told Neal I'd speak for him." This was a loaded offer: he was throwing his support and the support of his household behind Neal, with the implication that they would be responsible for him, were he found innocent. And Neal's guilt could easily drag them down along with him, just as kin might be held responsible for their kinfolks' actions.
"I support you in this," El said, quietly but firmly.
She was silent after that for so long that he thought she'd fallen asleep before she finally spoke again. "If the elders don't see it our way, we can give him over to the mercy of the gods."
Trial by ordeal. Peter shuddered at the thought of subjecting Neal to such a thing. If the person survived, the gods had made their decision and the person was innocent.
The gods rarely made that choice. And living with El, Peter knew why; he was aware of the extremely toxic plants that went into the ceremonial drink for participants in the ordeal. It would, indeed, take a divine miracle for anyone to survive.
The storm passed and the weather warmed slightly, melting most of the snow. Life at the farmstead went on as usual: the half-feral cattle and pigs foraged in the woods under the watchful eye of children and dogs, while the rest of the household worked on their usual winter tasks -- mending fences and thatched roofs, tanning hides, making and repairing tools and clothing, all the many routine little chores of life.
Neal showed, at first, little interest in socializing, speaking little and answering any question put to him with one-word replies. But he was willing to do a task if it was given to him, and slowly he, like the frozen world, began to thaw. It was with the children that Peter noticed it at first -- they were curious about him, and even though Neal didn't talk much, he never sent them away. He was very good with his hands, and endlessly patient at repairing their toys or crafting new ones out of leather scraps and bits of wood.
And so, gradually, he was drawn into the life of the little community centered around the farmstead. In the earliest days, Peter never saw him smile, but as time went on, it became less of a rare occurrence to hear him singing along with a work group as they mended thatch, or laughing at someone's joke around the fire at night.
And, even more important, it seemed that everyone else was starting to accept him, no longer seeing him as a distrusted outsider with a dangerous reputation, but instead as a trusted part of the household.
There were still times when Peter questioned his own judgment and hoped he hadn't made a mistake. He was no priest, with the ear of the gods; he was no elder relying upon a lifetime's experience. He was only a man, who had made a decision based much more in compassion than in careful thought and wisdom. If he was wrong, his family would pay for it.
But it seemed that the longer Neal stayed with them, the more he felt like a part of that family, too.
With better travel weather, the day Peter hadn't been looking forward to finally arrived.
They gathered in one of the sacred places, a hilltop with a ring of wooden poles pointing at the sky. It was a day's walk from Peter and El's farmstead, and they made camp at the bottom of the hill. Kate's family were already there, camped in an enclave on the other side of the hill. More people trickled in over the course of the next two days. Pigs were roasted and a festive air prevailed, despite the serious occasion.
In the presence of so many other people, many of them hostile to him, Neal had retreated back into his shell: speaking only when spoken to, his eyes distant and his bright smile once more vanished. Peter kept a close eye on him; if there ever was a time when Neal might run off, this was it. And Peter wasn't sure if he shouldn't let Neal go. Or maybe give him a push in that direction.
He spoke of his concerns to El. She shook her head. "If he leaves now, it will be proof of his guilt. He'll have to run forever."
"That's better than death." Although for someone like Neal, a naturally warm and gregarious person, to be condemned to a lifetime of flight, being shunned and ostracized wherever he went ... he might as well be dead.
"Trust the gods," El said quietly -- and winked at him.
Peter wasn't sure if he trusted the gods, but he knew he trusted his wife.
On the night of Neal's trial, El donned the ceremonial regalia that she'd brought with her in a large bundle. She did it in a private place; no one, even Peter, was allowed to watch the transformation from ordinary woman to speaker for the gods.
And it gave him a sharp twist in his chest, as always, seeing her step out of darkness at the bonfire in the middle of the circle, her face painted and the headdress of stags' antlers catching the firelight. She no longer looked like herself, and her eyes looked through him, not at him. She wasn't herself, he knew. The gods lived in her now.
Two of Kate's brothers were there to speak on the dead woman's behalf, and six of the local elders were arrayed before the fire. Peter stood behind Neal, who knelt with his hands loosely bound before him with a rawhide strap, naked to the waist in the chill late-winter air. He was pale and silent, his eyes fixed on the fire, or perhaps something beyond it that only he could see.
Outside the wooden circle, the rest of the gathering waited: friends and family and neighbors of the accused and the victim. They would be witness to whatever happened here. Peter had been part of gatherings like that before, and he knew the subtle currents of thrill and fear that ran through them. Whatever happened here, it was spectator sport and sacred duty in equal parts.
Kate's eldest brother told their story, much as Peter had heard it before. They'd returned to the farm to find Kate dead and Neal covered in her blood. As far as they knew, Kate and Neal had been alone on the farm.
Then Peter stepped forward and related the story as Neal had told it to him. Their faces looked grim; he didn't think they believed him. And he could understand why. No one had seen what happened. He wasn't sure why he was so convinced of Neal's innocence, but the more he'd gotten to know the young man over the previous days, the more he knew that Neal could not possibly have done what he was accused of doing.
But the elders had to consider the welfare of everyone, not just one man. Life depended upon the ability of people to trust each other: to trust their neighbors and the other people living under their roof. As long as there was doubt, Neal would be a disruption in the life of the community.
But he's not like that, he wanted to say. He's lived among us for many days now. The children love him. He's kind and gentle. He's not the man you think he is.
The spokesman for the elders began to speak. Peter only half-heard the words -- can't be trusted again ... threat to the community ... banishment ...
From the far side of the fire, El spoke quietly, but her voice carried, imbued with a subtle authority. "The elders have spoken and named you a murderer. But if you are confident of your own innocence, even in the eyes of the gods, you may choose the ordeal."
Neal looked up, past the bonfire to El on the edge of the circle of firelight, her goddess's face impassive and a bowl in her hands. "I choose the ordeal," he said, with only a slight quaver in his voice.
El stepped forward without hesitation, and Peter wondered whether his wife and Neal had, perhaps, talked about this beforehand. Or maybe it was only that he had faith in her. Peter didn't think it was faith in the gods.
Or maybe it was only that he had nothing to lose.
The painted wooden bowl was half full of an oily dark liquid. Peter had seen what that draught did to men, and he had to cover one hand with the other to stop himself from striking it out of Neal's hands. But Neal drank it to the bitter dregs, and made a face as he lowered the bowl.
El took the bowl back and stepped away, returning to her place at the edge of the circle.
Neal bowed his head, his hair hanging to cover his face. Peter tried not to think of the last time he'd witnessed the ordeal: the accused murderer frothing and convulsing, dying in agony with his face twisted until it was unrecognizable.
I should have let him run.
Neal made a small choking sound and then doubled over, vomiting into the trampled earth. Spasms of sickness wrung him; he could barely catch his breath between. Peter's stomach clenched in sympathy.
But it really wasn't the same as the other ordeals he'd witnessed. Neal was ill, but he didn't thrash in agony, he didn't choke for want of air. And after another bout of sickness, he seemed to relax, lying with his cheek resting against the dirt and his breath coming in short fast gasps.
Peter glanced at El. She watched with no expression on her face, giving nothing away.
A short time passed, broken only by Neal's soft panting and a low murmur running through the crowd. And the elders consulted quietly among themselves. Their spokesman came forward and knelt to turn Neal's face toward the firelight. Neal squinted against the light, one side of his face caked with dirt, and coughed a little.
"He lives. The gods have made their will known. Cut him free."
Kate's eldest brother surged forward. Peter and his other kinfolk caught him. "It's a trick, a cheat!" he bellowed.
"The gods do not cheat," El said calmly.
No, Peter thought, looking at her, but people do.
But the trial was done, satisfied in the ancient way. Kate's kin led her brother away, with many dark looks flashed over their shoulders at those still beside the fire. Neal's innocence might have been proven to the satisfaction of the elders, but Peter thought it was possible that his own family might find themselves dealing with a blood feud later.
So it would be, if it came to that.
He knelt and slashed Neal's bonds with a sharp stone blade, then helped him stand. Neal was limp and wobbly, his bare torso drenched with sweat despite the cold night air.
"That was unpleasant," Neal managed in a breathy whisper. His head drooped onto Peter's shoulder.
Peter led him away from the fire, supporting most of his weight. "You're free," he said, trying to get his mind around it. He felt as if something deep inside him was relaxing, trying to adjust to the new way of the world.
Neal was silent for a little while, mostly concentrating on staying upright. "I don't know what to do," he confessed at last in a small voice. "I don't have anywhere to go."
"Yes, you do," Peter told him. Neal feel silent -- whether overwhelmed or just on the verge of passing out, it was hard to tell.
He put Neal to bed in their tent, and then sat with him and cleaned him up when he was sick again. Neal was eventually able to drink a little water and sleep.
El came back near morning. She was wearing her normal clothing, and she had bathed; her hair lay in a thick wet plait down her back.
"He's sleeping," Peter said softly when she bent over Neal. He stepped outside and she followed him into the still cold of the night's darkest time. The stars were brilliant overhead. Dawn had not yet begun to pierce the sky.
"Kate's family has decamped," El said. "I saw them moving out as I returned."
"Heading which way?"
"Toward their home," she said, and he relaxed. Trouble might come later, but it would not be immediate. El knelt to stir up their fire. "How is Neal?"
"He'll be all right, I think," Peter said. Although they were alone, he didn't quite dare to add, But you knew that.
He crouched down beside her. He had always taken the ordeal at face value, never thinking about the fact that it was mortal hands -- priests' hands -- that gathered and mixed the plants that went into the drink. His desire to know the truth warred with caution, and finally curiosity won. "How often does this -- what happened here tonight -- happen?"
Her slight smile was all the answer he needed.
"So it's the priests decide who's guilty or innocent, not the gods."
El was already shaking her head. "The gods speak through us, love -- through our hearts and our hands. Who can say they don't whisper the truth to us, if we listen? Didn't they whisper it to you?"
There was nothing he could say to that, because it was true. He had no reason for the depth of his conviction that Neal had not committed murder. It was something that he simply knew.
"In the end, the elders are only men and women," El said. "And so are we. Sometimes they are wrong, and we have to speak for the innocent -- or punish the guilty."
And are you wrong sometimes, too? he wanted to ask, but couldn't quite bring himself to do so.
He couldn't think of anything else she might have done. And he could not find it in him to be sorry she'd done it.
It was two days before Neal was able to travel, a trying time during which he was well enough to be bored and fractious, but not well enough (in El's opinion) for the long walk home.
Peter spent a lot of that time sitting with him -- aside from occasionally getting thoroughly Nealed out and going off to hunt something. This constant surveillance was partly because he'd found Neal, on the first day of his convalescence, cutting the tent into strips and tying them together; there was some sort of convoluted explanation about the farmstead kids wanting a net for catching something or other, but what Peter mostly got out of it was that a bored Neal needed someone to keep a close eye on him. And it was also partly because he was worried that Kate's relatives might come back to finish what they'd started.
But also, he really liked Neal and liked spending time with him, and he was fascinated by the change in Neal since the trial. Neal might still be sick and weak, but there was a lightness to him that Peter hadn't seen in him before. It was as if a weight had been lifted off him. Even sick enough that he could only sit up for short periods of time before he had to lie down again, there was a playfulness to him that hadn't been there before.
He's happy, Peter thought. This is what Neal looks like happy.
There was still a shadow on him that might never lift. His wife was dead and Peter knew that was the sort of sorrow that would follow a man to his dying day; he could only imagine how hard he'd take El's death. But it was as if Neal had been straddling two worlds ever since Peter had known him, and had finally taken the first tentative step through an invisible door, from his gray-shaded world of sorrow and revenge, into the sunlight.
And the sun was indeed shining on the day they broke camp to head home. For Neal's sake, they went slowly, and dusk had fallen by the time they came over the small ridge and looked down on the farmstead. Peter thought of the last time he'd returned from a trip, with Neal as his prisoner and no idea of what was next or whether he'd done the right thing.
Now Neal was walking beside him as a free man.
"You know you'll have a place here as long as you want it," Peter said quietly to him as they descended to the house. El had gone on ahead; he could hear the distant babble of voices as they greeted her. "We can always use extra hands around the place."
"And an extra mouth to feed," Neal said, but he was smiling. The smile fell away slowly, and he said, "You know, Fowler is still out there."
"I know," Peter said.
"I'm going to find him. Once the weather is better."
"We'll find him."
"We?" Neal said, giving him a quick, startled look.
Peter didn't see any particular reason to repeat it. "We're almost home; think we can make it there before sunrise?"
Neal smiled to himself, and his tired steps picked up a little, heading toward the light and the warmth.